Our Venetian Christmas

By Francesco Bianchini


We planned on Venice because we thought no one would want to go there at Christmas, a destination that never knows a low tide in tourism; humid, prosaic, and smelly in the summer, yet still invaded in off-seasons, popular at the time of winter discounts in its big hotels. But Christmas itself? When everyone is at home, surrounded by family? We had a point: museums were open but at reduced hours, and some restaurants were closed, taking advantage of the short holiday break, so there were fewer people out and about. But the fact that there were fewer tourists in town certainly helped make them more conspicuous, ubiquitous, and loud. As in the Indonesian tsunami of that same year, Venice was likewise flooded, it seemed to us, by a tidal wave of survivors of devastating illnesses, devastating divorces. Either because the city has an innate aptitude for putting a good face on bad luck, or because it is one of those places that seem to promise epochal turning points in the lives of those seized by pressing wanderlust, it also had been the choice for these whining convalescents – mostly from America – to forget the most familial holiday of the year. They, usually accompanied by someone following their ordeals and plights with devotion, were found at every restaurant, punctually at the next table and close enough for us to be informed of the demise of various organs, or of the legal battles being fought to the tune of dollars. And if that wasn’t enough, they counted on the empathy of other diners who were also traveling with heavy baggage. Although Dan sometimes begged fellow Americans to be more discreet, at least keep their voices down, many of our evenings were thus spoiled.

Ethereal magic, Venice in winter

It was Christmas Eve. The banquet I am about to recount was all the more memorable because the place where it was consumed had been surreptitiously reserved for us, the only diners. We met my long-time friend Paola at Harry’s Bar for a martini, actually two. We then followed her as she mysteriously preceded us under the porticoes around St. Mark’s Square. I couldn’t say exactly where she led us, or even find my way back, because we zigzagged through narrow streets, crossed one or two bridges, and found ourselves in front of an apparently shuttered hotel. I can’t even swear that the place really exists – these things happen in Venice. At one moment something is there, and in the next it’s gone – and there’s no way to find it again; a mirage. Paola rang the bell and a middle-aged gentleman opened the door. There was an exchange of effusive greetings between the two. She introduced us to him, the maître d’hotel, who led us through dark and deserted hallways to a dining room overlooking a canal. There was a table set in a corner niche for us. A huge floor-to-ceiling window, set almost at water level, permitted us a view every now and then of passing gondolas, accompanied by great lapping sounds, much like dolphins in an aquarium. Our host was flanked by two impeccable waiters – one of whom was his son – who invited us to sit down. I counted five place settings. 

Frosty canal, from our restaurant window

Paola took advantage of a brief absence of the staff to inform us that her friend had been her first lover when she was very young; that he had made his career in the tourism industry in Venice, and that he now managed this restaurant. The maître returned with Prosecco and poured it while keeping a watchful eye on his assistants who began to serve smoked salmon accompanied with wild fennel. The pride shown on his face while introducing his son, and his joy in receiving Paola’s compliments, gave way to a concentrated and impartial professionalism. Next was the turn of a spectacular granseola di Natale, the large heart-shaped Mediterranean crab prepared by blanching its flesh and reassembling it inside the shell, flavored with chopped parsley, pepper, oil, and lemon juice. This dish was followed by two more: polenta e schie, small shrimp typical of the Venetian lagoon served on yellow polenta, and crispy grilled prawns. 

Granseola, the prized Venetian appetizer

Up to this point we were having cicheti – relatively small portions conceived to absorb wine that Venetian merchants drank after having concluded a good deal, a bit like Spanish tapas. And it did take all of those little dishes to ‘absorb’ the two bottles, Pinot bianco and Soave, that had evaporated in the meantime. At this juncture we were joined by Gigi, Paola’s boyfriend number two, an underwater archaeologist with many exciting stories. Lunch resumed where it had been interrupted. Main courses were served: delicious sardines in saòr – a sauce of delicate transparent onions wilted with oil, vinegar, pepper, and bay leaves in a pan; zucchini rolls stuffed with smoked tuna; finally grilled sea bream seasoned with a sauce that astonished us, first for the diversity of its ingredients – walnuts, cream, breadcrumbs, onions, garlic, parsley, mint, lemon, sugar, salt, pepper – but also for the caramelized flavor derived from such variety.

Never the Santa, always the elves

Roberto, Paola’s current husband, joined us for dessert, so our party of five was complete. Although groaningly full, we managed buranei, typical Venetian butter cookies in the shape of doughnuts, and crepes with Grand Marnier, washed down with a bottle of Recioto, a sweet wine from Valpolicella. By the time we left the hotel, darkness had descended on the calli and campelli, garlanded with Christmas lighting. Our afternoon banquet had stretched into evening – lasting like Lent – and now our very own Doña Flor, surrounded at the door by her three adoring men, was lavishing recommendations for other restaurants to try. In Venice, she said, it’s easy to end up in the wrong place. 

Gothic splendor, festively lit

Once back at our hotel, I covered my eyes with a pillow and laid still for two hours, attempting to sober up and to avoid a hangover and migraine. And by nine in the evening, Dan and I were heading to the famed Venetian Jewish quarter for dinner. It seemed heresy to skip Christmas Eve dinner, and why not a kosher one? So, after passing by a small park where boys were playing soccer in the glow of festive menorahs of white lights, and stopping on a bridge to listen to a young cantor sing out evening prayers in Hebrew, we found the old tavern recommended by Paola. Our choices were understandably Lenten: fish soup, shrimp in saor again, sea bass and grilled tuna, artichokes, and boiled potatoes with capers.

Cannaregio, the ancient Jewish quarter of Venice